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Marginal Utility
By Rob Horning
A blog about consumerism, technology and ideology.
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Ego depleted

Photo by Anne Arden MacDonald

Consumerism is sustained by the ideology that freedom of choice is the only relevant freedom; it implies that society has mastered scarcity and that accumulating things is the primary universal human good, that which allows us to understand and relate to the motives of others. We are bound together by our collective materialism.I was thinking of ego depletion lately in relation to the engineered compulsiveness of social media, so I thought I would repost and revise some old notes I had on the subject here.

Choosing among things, in a consumer society, is what allows us to feel autonomous (no one tells us how we must spend our money) and express, or even discover, our unique individuality — which is proposed as the purpose of life. If we can experience ourselves as original, our lives will not have been spent in vain. We will have brought something new to human history; we will have been meaningful. (This is opposed to older notions of being “true” to one’s station or to God’s plan.)

The quest for originality collides with the capitalist economic imperative of growth. The belief that more is better carries over to the personal ethical sphere, so that making more choices seems to mean a more attenuated, bigger, more successful self. The more choices we can make and broadcast to others, the more of a recognized identity we have. Originality can be regarded as a question of claiming more things to link to ourselves and combining them in unlikely configurations.

If we believe this, then it seems like good policy to maximize the opportunities to make consumer choices for as many people as possible. This will give more people a sense of autonomy, social recognition, and personal meaning. Considering the amount of time and space devoted to retail in the U.S., it seems as though we are implementing this ideology collectively. The public-policy goals become higher incomes, more stores, and reliable media through which to display personal consumption. This supposedly yields a population that is fulfilling its dreams of self-actualization.

But when you add the possibility of ego depletion — the loss of well-being due to overtaxing the executive decision-making function of the mind; it’s explained in this 2011 New York Times piece by John Tierney on “decision fatigue” — to this version of identity, it no longer coheres. Trying to grow the self through exercising market choice simultaneously generates a scarcity of “ego” resources, which are depleted by this sort of reflexive approach to performing the self as a rational decision-maker above all. “When you shop till you drop, your willpower drops, too,” Tierney writes. The choices become progressively less rational, less representational, less “original,” and more prone to being automatic or being manipulated by outside interests, thus ceasing to be emblematic of the “true self.” Instead of elaborating a more coherent self through a series of decisions, one establishes an increasingly incoherent and disunified self that is increasingly unpredictable and illegible to others. We lose the energy to think about who we are and act accordingly, and we begin acting efficiently instead, with increasingly less interest in coherence, justice, consistency, morality, and so on. We want to make the “convenient” choices rather than the ethical ones, the ones that we believe reflect the truth about us.

This represents a serious threat to economic models hinging on rational actors and “revealed preference,” as behavioral economics has attempted to demonstrate. It underwrites the business model of nickel-and-diming consumers into submission, as airlines have recently taken to doing. But it also muddles the self that has been fostered by consumerism. It suggests that consumerism is a control strategy based on exhaustion, not fulfillment. If ego depletion leads to impulsivity, one can see how overloading individuals with opportunities to choose becomes a deliberate strategy to encourage exhaustion and render people easier to control. As decision fatigue sets in, morality and personal idiosyncrasies are overridden by the underlying desire for conservative efficiency, the nature of which can be anticipated.

The more options to optimize our experience that we are confronted with, the less resistance we can mount and the more likely it is we can be brought to the decision that companies want us to reach. Tierney points out that “decision fatigue leaves you vulnerable to marketers who know how to time their sales, as Jonathan Levav, the Stanford professor, demonstrated in experiments involving tailored suits and new cars.” Maximizing choices, then, doesn’t foster autonomy and creativity in self-realization; it does the opposite, reducing people to more or less uniform impulses. Complexity, elaborate customization possibilities, are a strategy for controlling people, not for giving them the opportunity to mirror their uniqueness in a particular commodity. Customization is a mode of control rather than liberation.

Advertising from this perspective is less useful information and more a series of temptations that constitute an assault to the integrity of the self, which depends on conserving the choices it makes to remain “authentic.” The threat of ego depletion also makes invitations to “share” the self and engage in social media into threats to that self as well, as long as it is understood to be a sum of communicative choices and not the ongoing process of confronting them. The endless opportunities social media afford for users to interact end up depleting the self (as it was once understood), resulting in the curious situation where the more one uses social media, the more desubjectified one becomes. The more you share, the less rational selfhood you possess.

Arguably, the “authentic self” consists precisely in these efficient choices we make when we are too tired to strategize about what we are choosing. As in a productivity gurus’s dream, efficiency for its own sake would be the very basis of the real. But efficiency seems more like a nonidentity, what remains when subjectivity can’t be achieved. So the pursuit of convenience, too, is desubjectifying in this way; it removes the friction in our choices and deprives them of their identity-making basis. The more we crave convenience, the more we long to be no one in particular.



Pillow Book #14, Anne Arden McDonald

Ego depletion is a close conceptual cousin of the attention economy, which similarly presumes that attentional focus is a cognitive resource subject to scarcity and demanding economic management. Being overwhelmed with stimuli can become a mechanism of control as well. This is the idea behind  Franco Berardi’s theory of “cognitarian subjectivation,” which, by forcing us to turn our emotional experience into productive labor, threatens to overwhelm the organic limits on our ability to perceive. ”Today it is the social brain that is assaulted by an overwhelming supply of attention-demanding goods,” he argues. “The social factory has become the factory of unhappiness: the assembly line of networked production is directly exploiting the emotional energy of the cognitive class.” The economy is being organized to maximally harness the energy people spend making consumerist choices to create identity within consumerism’s code and thereby strengthen that code. The mode of exploitation is oversaturation.

In the future, we’ll have an economy based on the labor of sociality in social media networks that are subsumed by capital: that is, we’ll fight for attention on Facebook, etc., and that effort will be harvestable as data by the firms that own the networks, who will sell us tools derived from that data to abet our struggle for more attention.

As we articulate our identities within attention-depleting media, recognition increasingly becomes a zero-sum game; one’s recognized identity comes at the expense of another’s in that it steals attention away. Identity becomes competitive in these forums, further destabilizing it. The problem worsens as this recognition becomes not a mere matter of ontological security but economic viability, as digital labor (personal brand building, etc.) becomes a required prerequisite for other work, or the only kind of (precarious) work available. Karen Gregory, in a post about “hyperemployment,” points out that  ”the overattachment to digital devices … can be seen as learned behavior emerging from a poorly controlled Milgram experiment in which we are both the ones shocked by the persistent buzzing our devices (‘opportunity’ calling) and the ones doing the shocking, giving in to invisible structures of authority that mark the evolving, ever increasingly digitally mediated labor landscape.” This leads to an “accompanying ‘administration’ of one’s life that takes the form of an endless to-do list.”

Fighting for recognition is also a kind of self-care-work, another aspect of the endless to-do list — unacknowledged affective labor that becomes more burdensome rather than less with the proliferation of forums ostensibly intended to help with it. In the name of efficiency, Social media tend to individuate the collective work necessary for reproducing the social — for maintaining the connections and relations of care that make life livable. But this supposed efficiency makes the workload even more unmanageable and distributes it more unfairly even as it multiplies the work that seems to be necessary. In place of solidarity, social media prompt users to compete over attention, divvy it up rather than share the responsibility for replenishing its store or easing the demands that deplete it. Social media can serve as an individualized accounting system for socially reproductive labor that encourages economizing efforts to shirk it. Social media turn sociality, a potentially replenishing respite, into a series of depleting decisions about how to manage the interaction.

And we compete not only with one another, but also with consumer products that are also contrived to soak attention that co-exist in the same space as crypto agents. (Candy Crush Saga is stealing your identity in more ways than one.) As Zygmunt Bauman argues in Consuming Life, we make ourselves into commodities to complete for attention in a consumer society, in which recognition is parceled out chiefly to commodities and evaluative criteria are derived from consumer markets. This makes broadcasting a “personal brand” self in social media appear like a better bet than looking for recognition outside it, in terms not dictated by the platforms that facilitate and automate interpersonal acknowledgment (likes, etc.). But as the engagement in social media leads to ego depletion, the pursuit of recognition becomes a dizzying race toward desubjectification — more decisions, more attention “spent,” more exhaustion, more autopilot. Berardi puts it this way: “Acceleration leads to an impoverishment of experience. More information, less meaning. More information, less pleasure.”

Information coming in at an overwhelming rate kills pleasure. It turns pleasure into processing, which leads directly to the “machine zone” that Natasha Dow Schüll associates with video gambling. This is why efforts to accelerate consumption should always be regarded with suspicion — these do not help us achieve more; they revert us to efficiency-seeking drones. The remedy for the corrosive effects of convenience cannot be simply searching for something even more convenient.

The human’s capacity for rational choice, such as it is, is an alibi for capitalism precisely because it is the facet of humanity it strives to overcome. “Semiocapitalism,” to use Berardi’s term, has discovered that the best way to defeat rational choice is to solicit it as much as possible. Social media are on the same track.


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